Museums without Walls is part of the on-going Exhibiting Research series, organised by the Courtauld’s MA Programme Curating the Art Museum in collaboration with the Research Forum. The debate explored the implications of the virtual presence of art images and collections on the future of the ‘real’ museum experience. How do museums meet the public’s need for online content? And how have digital platforms affected the role of the art curator?

With Dr Sarah Hyde as chair, the speakers were from a diverse range of art-related backgrounds. As Producer of Interactive Media at Tate Online, Kirstie Beaven asserted from the start that Tate’s mission statement to increase public understanding and perception of art is key to showing art in the digital age. The focus being on participation and working closely with the curators and the gallery. Offering a curatorial perspective was Xavier Bray, Chief Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Spencer Hyman, Chief Executive of Art Finder which offers an incredible (although still in its development stage) app which I now have and strongly recommend! As a former COO of, Spencer entertained us with his music/art analogies throughout. And finally, our very own Joff Whitten from Public Programmes at the Courtauld. Joff, very democratically, proffered the general consensus from the start: that digital does not and cannot replace the gallery experience.

One issue that the digitalisation of the museum creates is the questioning of the role of the curator. What happens when people encounter objects in museums is very different from an encounter through a screen. But the main thing to remember is that the huge range of technologies out there are there waiting to be used as interpretative tools by museums. The debate centred on whether institutions have a responsibility to provide online content to the public. But the feeling was that this is not an option anymore and that it is essential to move out of the material world. For the museum audience being catered for today, online availability has become a requirement. From a curatorial point of view, Xavier made the point that digital is a helpful tool for sharing images and that museums have a responsibility to maintain interest in their collection, so that once a visitor’s curiosity is stimulated they have the option to go on to find out more digitally. Whether this mode of viewing encourages a person to visit an artwork in person (always the hope) or not, the focus today is on the access and providing of information via digital means.

The group attempted to tackle the problematic google images and the google gallery tours in their offering of mega-pixelated images beyond the naked eye. The question is, do these tools supplant the real world or in-fact question the need even to visit museums at all? These types of tools certainly offer a new and engaging route into art but it was agreed that the pressure to provide such tools puts a strain on smaller museums, tight finances etc. It became clear that such high-tech digital involvement by museums may not be so necessary after all: the focus after all should be on the image and one’s connection with it in person as well as the social side of visiting a museum to exchange views and opinions.

Thus a tension is created between the physical museum and its digital presence. But can they not unite in their offering of education and information? Isn’t it the focus of museums to give people access to their collections whether they can afford/have time to visit in person or not. So in a way they do have a responsibility to educate and therefore to have a strong digital presence that the group agreed would support the museum experience. The problem with digital images is that of the loss of scale and the repetitive reproductions that begin to wear down the pleasure of viewing the artwork. A relationship is needed with the space and surrounding works, as well as the physicality of the object. The loss of the curatorial decision process, the dialogue between objects is irreplaceable digitally and furthers the tension.

It seems that the ‘utopia’ of the digital museum is to find a balance between giving the option of information and providing a personal connection for people with the exhibition overall and each individual artwork. The group agreed that the digital and physical experiences of art are equally valid but serve very different purposes. There is still a lot of restriction within digital but it can offer a lot that the physical experience cannot and having the choice is a complicated idea but is a key part of museums today.